Homeland Security’s drone program has been a waste of money so far, according to the department’s inspector general, who on Tuesday told the department to cancel plans to spend nearly half a billion dollars on more of the aircraft.
The department paid more than $12,000 an hour to fly its drones, kept them in the air far less than it had promised and chiefly used them over just 170 miles of the 1,993-mile border.
Drones were judged to have helped in less than 2 percent of apprehensions of illegal immigrants.
“We see no evidence that the drones contribute to a more secure border,” Inspector General John Roth said, telling the department to cancel its $443 million order for more drones.
The drone program is eight years old and is run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that handles the border. As of late last year it had nine drones operating — three in Arizona, three in Texas and three in North Dakota, as well an operating center in Jacksonville, Florida.
CBP, in a response to the inspector general, rejected the conclusions and disputed the cost figure. The agency also denied it planned to buy 14 more drones, saying its plan is only to enhance the existing program and replace one drone that “ditched” off the coast of California last year.
“There is no intent at this time to acquire additional [drones] beyond the one replacement aircraft, nor does OAM have a contract or finding in place to expand the [drone] program,” said Randolph D. Alles, head of CBP’s Office of Air and Marine.
But the inspector general said it still believes the agency has “long-term” plans to expand its fleet, pointing to documents that envision a stable of 24 aircraft.
The inspector general has long been critical of the operation, questioning the agency’s ability to keep the drones maintained and flying. It also questioned the agency’s arrangements for lending the drones out to other federal agencies.
CBP, though, vehemently defends the technology as an important addition to its toolbox, and said there are other measures that show flying drones is effective in helping secure the border. The agency said the drones do a good job of spotting incursions and shouldn’t be judged based on how many of those illegal crossers are eventually caught.
The friction between CBP and the inspector general was evident throughout the report.
The two sides couldn’t even agree on whether drones have been used to cover parts of the southern border. CBP insisted they have been used drones in New Mexico, while the inspector general said it found records showing 3.8 flight hours in New Mexico, but said that flight appeared to be a drone on its way to somewhere else, not a mission to patrol the New Mexico border.
The inspector general said CBP was being “misleading” in trying to claim it was using the drones borderwide.
Another government auditor, the Government Accountability Office, reported last year that a fifth of the drone flights were done within the interior of the U.S., or beyond the 100-mile range of operations at the borders and coasts where CBP is supposed to have lawful jurisdiction.
GAO investigators said the drone program did have procedures designed to train operators to respect civil liberties laws, including operating the drones at an altitude of between 19,000 feet and 28,000 feet, where video images don’t permit identification of individuals or license plates. That prevents specific targeting, investigators said.
CBP drones also don’t have cameras capable of capturing images of the interior of homes.